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2The Best Writing Can Happen By Accident

2K Games

The villain of Spec Ops is Colonel John Konrad. The game is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, which is based on Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad ("I happened to have a copy of Heart Of Darkness on my desk," says Williams, "and thought 'Ehhh ... I'll just call him Conrad for now. But I'll spell it with a K!'"). Lots of gamers and critics got that reference and appreciated it -- there's definitely an audience for games that are a little bit smarter than your average simulated shooting rampage. But then writers will get a little too clever.

"I wanted to establish Konrad as a cultured man," says Williams. "So I had him quote the poet Charles Simic -- 'Everything is teetering on the edge of everything.' To the best of my knowledge, not a single person got the reference. In fact, if you Google those words, most of the results are about Spec Ops, including one called 'The 50 Best Video Game Quotes of All Time!' which is an absolute travesty."

2K Games
Shakespeare must feel the same way about how nobody credits him for "It's-a me, Mario!"

Other decisions are, well, not quite as well thought-out: "A good name says something about the character. So I put it to the team: 'Who is our main character?' And no one said anything. So out of frustration I'm like, 'Well, I guess he walks a lot, so we'll call him Walker.' I forced the point, thinking that someone would come back with something better. No response. So Walker went down, and it never changed. People find things and read into them and say, 'Oh wow, you've put a lot of thought into this. There's a lot of subtext and metaphor here,' and you just go, 'Uh, yes. I totally did that on purpose and not by accident. I am a god.'"

2K Games
Yep, 'Ugh' totally expresses the sad resignation of a soldier facing the horrors of war, not Williams on hour 17 of a 19-hour workday.

Not to take anything away from Williams' work, but he makes it sound like game creation looks a lot like a junior high student slapping together their science project at the last minute. But that chaos can lead to brilliance. Note: The following contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

The game became a critical darling partly because it contains several mindfuck plot twists involving an unreliable narrator who can't trust that what he's seeing is real. Well, the biggest one was the result of a begrudging gameplay compromise. The game starts with a flash-forward to a helicopter chase. The chase had been suggested three years before release as a way of starting with a big action sequence. Then the game was rewritten to start slow, and the chase got killed in the name of story. But ...

"When we were doing the final voice recording, I got an email saying my boss had decreed the game would start with the chase. I knew he'd timed it so I would be too busy to fight it. I was unbelievably pissed. I decided the chase wouldn't be a flash-forward. The player would secretly die when the chopper crashed, and everything after would be a 'life flashing before your eyes' hallucination. I jotted down five quick lines, fed them to my actors, and recorded them immediately. That's all I had time to do. But it changed the narrative. Suddenly, a straightforward story about a soldier losing his mind became the tale of a man reliving his greatest failures as he dies alone. For something done entirely out of anger and as a knee-jerk response, I'm pretty proud of how it turned out."

1Writing For Blockbuster Games Is Only Getting Harder

2K Games

Better graphics, bigger budgets, more famous voice actors ... if you're a video game storyteller by trade, this has to be the golden age, right? Like, even considering the corporate restrictions at play, doesn't the sheer amount of available tools make up for it? Well, that's the thing -- the more elaborate the technology, the harder it is to do the most important writing task of all: editing out the bad stuff.

As Williams explains, "Back in the day it was just text and simple animation, and it was easy to change. Now, convincing someone to change [a cutscene] is a massive undertaking. They don't have the budget, they don't have the time. You end up rewriting finished scenes in a way that the new words will match the lip-sync of the previous lines."

Ubisoft
"I can't make this work, someone get the Bad Lip Reading guy."

Yeah, bigger budgets also mean that when work is done, it's done -- regardless of how little sense it makes later. It costs too much to scrap it. So then it comes down to the writers to try to figure out how to shoehorn in a scene that no longer fits:

"At one point [in Spec Ops], you come across two men. The antagonist explains that both men have committed crimes worthy of a death sentence. It's up to the player to decide guilt. But when we changed the story so that Konrad is in fact dead and Walker is secretly insane, suddenly this made no sense. We wanted to cut it, but one of our bosses felt the scene worked so well that it couldn't be cut, regardless of whether it made sense. So we just had to accept it. This boss was literally the only person who felt it should stay. Even [voice actor] Nolan North, during recording, was like, 'You guys are going to fix this, right?' The only workaround I could come up with was having Walker hallucinate the entire scene, which isn't revealed until the end. But, it was [a huge stretch]. Walker goes comatose and hallucinates himself in a 'moral choice.' The player takes part in this tense moment, but what's really happening is the player character is standing there staring at corpses while his squad mates yell at him."

But then when it comes time for the really crucial scenes at the end that tie the plot together, they may find out there's no money left. "At the end of Spec Ops, the whole big climatic scene where you find out [that you're crazy and have been hallucinating the villain] ... we had no budget." Williams had to slap the scene together out of preexisting footage, like if in Star Wars VIII they ran out of money and had to reuse the lightsaber battle from VII with a different background.

"That entire scene was done with motion capture from other scenes. I'm like 'We need this,' they're like 'Uh, we have no time or money,' so I said, 'Send me the files, I don't care if they've been used, we can just point the camera from a different angle and slap a different character model on it and no one will realize they've seen this before.' It's a weird way to reuse footage. It's a constant struggle."

Honestly, we're now kind of surprised that good games get made at all.

Jeffrey is on Twitter. So is Walt. Mark is too, and he has a story collection.

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